Directors: Lauren DeFilippo and Sam Soko
A fascinating if controversial experiment is underway in villages around the world exploring what would happen if people living in poverty are given a basic income each month for 12 years. Four years in and Lauren DeFilippo and Sam Soko’s documentary Free Money already has much to report and this engaging 80-minute documentary examines the approach from multiple perspectives. But does this form of charity just create further division within and between communities?
Free Money considers the seemingly altruistic intentions of American organisation GiveDirectly that sends money to the phone of every eligible and registered participant in their long trial. DeFilippo and Soko establish a context in which NGOs promise much and deliver very little, often encouraging communities in Africa to get into debt to build houses or similar ventures that the NGO never return to finish. Interviewing GiveDirectly founder Michael Faye, the filmmakers encounter a man utterly convinced by his vision, insistent that the principles of free money given directly to people to do what they want with will end poverty. Across the years of this documentary, as he builds his brand, Faye’s rhetoric becomes notably more corporate as he justifies exclusions and qualifications that affect its villagers in practice. Subtly in this film, the village changes but so too does the company supporting it.
To get that real human story, DeFilippo and Soko travel to Kogutu in Kenya, one of the experiment locations, charting the initial selection and interview process as well as how the money starts to change their lives. A year on, even two, this is clearly a happy place to be, homes have been repaired or extended, businesses have started up and several younger villagers can now attend school or College thanks to the free money that pays their fees. It appears that the scheme has worked seamlessly, and through the stories of particular individuals, the filmmakers capture the joy and relief that is clearly evident in this newly revived place.
But there is far more to Free Money than positive publicity for GiveDirectly, and over time problems start to emerge. Jael doesn’t receive her payments when she turns 18 and, lost in the corporate machine, it is now impossible to find out why with agents blandly dismissing her ineligibility but unable to pinpoint what happened. The directors know why, in a scene shown early in the film, Jael was out for a run on registration day and, it is implied, the agents never came back to verify her residency. Likewise, for a couple of years the money is enough for John to go to college in Nairobi but the city is more expensive than the basic income in a section that quietly wonders how value was calculated relative to geography and the actual cost of living.
And the film also shows the inequality the scheme creates between neighbouring communities, only some of which are participating. These excluded groups complain that their friends with money get served at the market before they do, increasing division and resentment in the region, an inadvertent outcome of the approach that GiveDirectly are comfortable accepting as the nature of the trial. This scientific perspective, however, looks very different on the ground with Free Money showing the disappointment and disillusion that affects individual expectation and plans for their future.
A final strand follows BBC journalist Larry Madowo who grew up close to the focal site in Kenya and now works in America. This far more sceptical perspective connects the two angles in DeFilippo and Soko’s film, drawing out bigger questions about ‘white saviours’ and the remoteness of big charitable organisations from the people they help. Free Money has a lot of interesting things to contribute to this debate and, with eight years left in the programme, much more to tell us about the consequences of charitable giving when it is all over.
But it leaves the viewer with one heart-warming outcome, a community pool within the village sharing the money to help the family most in need each month. These are good people at the mercy of a now corporate agenda, but one that still might help recipients over the poverty line. Only time will tell.
Free Money is released in cinemas and on demand on 21 April.